A behind-the-scenes look at the Iowa straw poll
August 15, 1999
Web posted at: 5:51 p.m. EDT (2151 GMT)
AMES, Iowa (AllPolitics, August 15) -- Iowa's GOP straw poll seemed to go off without a hitch Saturday -- thanks to months of planning by the presidential candidates' campaigns. CNN talked to the top three teams to get an inside look at the effort.
Home of the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, Iowa is known for grassroots organizing. The straw poll -- where grassroots organization, details and timing are key -- served as a dry run for the campaigns.
For example, the Hilton Coliseum can hold only 13,800 people, so Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign wanted to get all their people in as soon as the doors opened. But as of 3 p.m., they were still waiting for another "quarter" of their buses to arrive, a Bush spokeswoman said.
Eventually, when more than 24,000 people showed up to participate -- well over the original estimates -- the effort to get people in the door became a bigger issue.
Fire marshals were forced to shut people out when the building reached its maximum capacity, just before the candidates' speeches were to begin. As a result, frustrated participants were forced to wait in lines outside the building hoping to still be able to vote. The state party said that if people were in line at 8:15 p.m., they could still vote. There were 18 voting places inside.
All along, the Bush campaign did not want to buy into the expectation game.
Their candidate entered the straw poll contest just "63 days," before it was held, said Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes.
Quietly, the operation set its goal on getting 5,000 votes. Their Iowa leadership and the national campaign political
leadership organized chairmen in 90 of the 99 counties, as well as 90 "farm chairmen." There were 100 additional team captains that were responsible for bringing 10 participants each to the straw poll.
"We set our spending limit at $750,000," Hughes acknowledged.
But Hughes said that they bought more tickets at the end.
Ultimately, the campaign distributed more than 10,000 tickets. The Bush operation hired 59 buses and also had a shuttle running every 15 minutes from Des Moines to Ames.
Knowing that the stakes were high, the Bush campaign appeared to be the only operation with a visible mechanism to determine if people voted for their candidate. At the Bush sign-in tent, registrants got a pass to wear into the Coliseum. Once they voted, their pass would get a "W" sticker and only then could they collect a coveted Bush shirt.
The campaign of two-time presidential candidate and multimillionaire magazine publisher Steve Forbes spent the most money on the straw poll, reaching close to $2 million. Half of that was spent on television ads.
All along, the Forbes strategy was to show that Bush did not have the race locked up, not to win the straw poll outright. The Forbes campaign filled about 109 buses, according to National Campaign Chairman Ken Blackwell.
Another top Forbes adviser said that they rented the buses from Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. "We started lining up the buses two months ago," the aide said.
There were long lines running down the street and around the corner to register at the Forbes tent. "We are organized for over 5,000 people, but we will be over that," Blackwell claimed.
And they were. Another top Forbes adviser said that they bought over 7,000 tickets for people. Not all of those people ended up voting for Forbes.
The Forbes adviser said that they had both county and team captains. "There were 1,400 plus team captains," the aide said. Seventy-seven counties had a chairman. When registrants signed in, they got a T-shirt, a copy of Forbes' book and a baseball cap.
The Forbes campaign appeared to be the only campaign with a visible whip organization on the floor of the Coliseum. Their aides, all dressed in navy blazers for the most part, had earpieces so they could communicate with the rest of the operation.
Going into the straw poll, the campaign of former Red Cross head and former Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole was reticent to make predictions as to how well their candidate would do.
Clearly, they did not put the same amount of money into the
effort as did the top two contenders, spending a mere $250,000.
Still, by bringing new participants to the straw poll, Dole won the sought-after third-place finish. Bush and Forbes had been predicted to win the top two spots; the race for third was still in question.
To get there, the Dole campaign hired 50 buses from Iowa and nearby states.
"We distributed over 5,000 tickets, and about 3,000 of those actually showed up," Dole Communications Director Ari Fleischer said. "We brought in a lot of new participants. Three-quarters of our supporters here were new to the straw poll."
In the end, the event that pulled in a record number of participants proved that grassroots organizing is alive and well in Iowa. So as the campaigns prepare for the Iowa caucus five months away, their dress rehearsal may have provided invaluable lessons -- at least, for the top three.